Sri Lanka have achieved the unimaginable – a series win in South Africa. It has got to be their greatest win in the history for a variety of reasons. Firstly, only Australia and England have won a series in South Africa in their 130-year history. Secondly, this was a second string Sri Lankan side. Much stronger teams have come to South Africa and had eaten humble pie.
The Sri Lankans had no Rangana Herath to rely on. Angelo Mathews, the team’s best batsman is injured and so are the team’s three quickest bowlers – Nuwan Pradeep, Lahiru Kumara and Dushmantha Chameera. To add insult to injury, their lead spinner Lasith Embuldeniya suffered dislocated thumb and was ruled out for six weeks on the opening day of the second Test. No one expected Sri Lanka to win the series leave alone compete.
South Africa were cocky. They had got the scheduling horribly wrong. Had the Sri Lankans been asked in which venues they wanted to play the two Test, without batting an eyelid they would have opted for Port Elizabeth and Durban. These are the two slowest wickets in South Africa and historically the Sri Lankans had done well here. That is exactly what was offered to them by their hosts.
There were no games in Johannesburg, Cape Town or Centurion, where the ball flies and the quicks dominate. Cricket South Africa had allocated the three venues for the series against Pakistan that preceded and won handsomely 3-0. CSA may have thought that Sri Lanka offered the lesser threat compared with Pakistan. That backfired.
At all three venues – Johannesburg, Cape Town and Centurion – on previous tours Sri Lanka had suffered innings defeats. They were absolutely over the moon that they were not going to Highveld or the Western Cape.
Yet, the series was not offered on a platter. There are no freebies in South Africa where cricket is tough and hard. The Proteas’ home record is a proof for that.
If you thought the Durban win was a fluke where the last wicket added 78 runs to pull off a stunning one wicket win, Port Elizabeth proved that the Sri Lankans had the nucleus to compete.
Dimuth Karunaratne the man who was handed the reins after Dinesh Chandimal was axed changed the team culture. He relaxed the curfew for the players. The Sri Lankans had been on the run for three months nonstop having toured Australia and New Zealand without spending a single day at home. He had felt that strict guidelines was not going to help his side.
Instead, he told the players to relax and chill. Staying away from family for three months is hard and when in overseas where you have no friends the last thing you want to do is to lock yourself up in the room and be like a hermit.
Another thing that Karunaratne did was to back his young players. It was a bold move to hand Lasith Embuldeniya a Test debut when Lakshan Sandakan was already in the squad. But it proved to be a great decision as Embuldeniya claimed a five-wicket haul on debut in South Africa’s second innings in Durban. He showed a lot of character with the bat in the first Test and on the morning of third day in Port Elizabeth, with the game hanging in the balance, he was seen in the dressing room trying to see whether he could grip the bat. Just in case he had to go out with the team needing maybe 20 runs to win. Great stuff.
Not that his services were required. Sri Lanka needed 137 runs with eight wickets in hand heading into Day 3. When you have Kaigiso Rabada, Dale Steyn and Duanne Olivier, who clock 140 kmph on average, South Africa were favourites.
Sri Lanka’s young duo of Kusal Mendis and Oshada Fernando played with freedom. They were going at 4.5 runs-an-over at the start with Mendis racing to his ninth Test fifty in just 52 balls. He was throwing caution to the wind. He really was.
The manner in which he took on Steyn was an absolute treat to watch. Here’s the greatest fast bowler of this generation coming into bowl his first over of the day, Mendis hit three fours off him. A couple of exquisite cover drives and sublime straight drive told the story.
He was involved in an unfinished 164-run stand for the third wicket with Oshada Fernando. Mendis finished with 85 not out and Fernando was unbeaten on 75. Both hail from Moratuwa, an outskirt of Colombo that has produced some of the finest Sri Lankan players like Duleep Mendis and Romesh Kaluwitharana.
The Moratuwaites are easy going people who love fun. The two young Sri Lankans were doing exactly that making merry of the South African bowling.
South Africa don’t take pressure well. Soon Faf du Plessis spread the field and it was matter of picking up the singles from thereon.
Sri Lanka owed the series win to Kusal Janith Perera, who was appropriately named Player of the Series. His whirlwind unbeaten 153 in Durban changes Sri Lanka’s fortunes. Not very often you see Sri Lankan seamers outclassing their South African counterparts. This time it was different. Vishwa Fernando finished with 12 wickets followed by Kasun Rajitha, who claimed nine. Rabada and Olivier finished third and fourth with eight and seven scalps respectively. Dean Elgar was Fernando’s bunny as he dismissed him on three occasions.
The pace of South Africa was far better than that of Sri Lanka’s. The tourists excelled in showing discipline bowling probing spells and speed didn’t matter that much in Durban and Port Elizabeth.
“We lost to England at home and then we started losing overseas. That gave us nowhere to go. There was no hope. It was as if we couldn’t win anywhere in the world. In the Australia series, the wickets that we played on, and the bowling that we faced - a few of us got injured and got hit - we were in a lot of fear. It’s with all that fear that we came here. This result has been sensational.”
Dale Benkenstein, the South African batting coach admitted his side was not all there. “We came in a little bit complacent, we addressed that, but it’s still very important to have the right attitude coming into a series. We’re saying all the right things, but it’s difficult to change what’s inside you and being a little complacent is a dangerous place to be.”
All in all this has been one of the greatest upsets in the history of Test cricket. David slaying Goliath kind of moment.